How small businesses can help their communities engage with election candidates in the face of lockdown

Even though some of the restrictions have been lifted recently, we will not be having the set piece exchanges where candidates face halls full of people asking lots of questions

The candidate lists have now been published. As the database gets filled in, https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ will be able to display the candidates in your area just from your post code. If nothing comes up but you know of candidates standing, you can input their details via https://candidates.democracyclub.org.uk/

At the foot of this blogpost I’ve provided hyperlinks to the official statements of persons nominated to stand for election for Cambridgeshire County Council.

Put simply: Organise online hustings and/or be willing to sponsor/co-organise one

The Queen Edith’s Community Forum has helped produce and collate a series of candidates videos for the elections coming up on 06 May. You can watch them all here. This is very similar to, but a more refined approach from my 2017 attempts to get as many county council candidates as I could get my hands on to make intro videos. You can watch those 2017 videos here. Remember that this was a time when candidates were still not entirely comfortable with being on camera. After a year of lockdown and so many people having to do things on video conference, speaking into a camera and participating in online meetings is now an essential competency.

Don’t underestimate the positive impact that online public meetings has had on people with mobility limitations – whether health-related, child-care-related or otherwise. More people are able to follow, more people are able to watch later on, more people are able to hold decision-makers to account on the commitments they make at formal meetings. *This is extremely positive* in light of all of the challenges we’ve all had.

Avoiding pitfalls if you are a tech/comms firm

One firm below did the video side competently enough, but let themselves down with tweets from the debate that did not inform the watching public.

Either live-tweet who said what with attribution, or don’t live-tweet at all. In this case all that came from the official stream was a statement that a question had been asked – but not the detail of the question, and no follow-ups on what the candidates said in response.

Furthermore, it’s generally bad form to have a party-political figure as your debate chairperson. This was probably out of the hands of the firm concerned, who had been commissioned by a lobby group headed by a former Conservative Health Secretary and former MP for South Cambridgeshire. The more standard route is to commission an experienced journalist or broadcaster to do the chairing. In the corporate world where money is not a barrier, this is what should have been done here.

“You’re hardly going to spend large amounts of money on an expensive national journalist for a small ward-level hustings, are you?”

At a very local level, often a community figure who is outside of party politics and who is comfortable public speaking and managing people make good debate chair persons. Sometimes that may be someone in religious orders – a vicar, sometimes it might be a prominent local business person, sometimes it might be someone who hosts or runs a community initiative such as chairing a residents’ association.

Here’s one example from before lockdown, the 2018 Queen Edith’s hustings featuring candidates who have all decided not to stand for elections in Cambridge this year.

Four political parties stood in that election, with local community newsletter editor Chris Rand as the debate chair. Note this was his fourth local hustings as host over which time the team was able to refine its approach to enable as many people got to ask questions as possible. Also it enabled me to provide extracts from the event to each of the candidates for them and their parties to use for campaigning. Useful in an era when political parties and candidates were still hesitant about doing so.

In and around Cambridge there are enough communications consultancies and enough freelance journalists who I think could get together and host online hustings. This can be either:

  • Geographical – whether at ward/division level, or
  • By subject/theme – covering the whole city and inviting political parties to nominate a spokesperson/policy lead to take part.

It can also involve alliances of groups as well. The Environment is traditionally a strong one, and they are setting the example.

Above – the Environmental Mayoral Hustings – details here.

In Cambridge with all the seats up for election for the City Council, and with the exception of the Conservatives in West Chesterton, each of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, The Green Party and The Conservatives are standing full slates. So for ward level hustings parties will either need to decide who will be the one taking part in a single hustings, or if anyone is feeling brave, hosting multiple hustings to cover them all.

“Three separate hustings in the same ward? That’s intense!”

Sounds like fun from here! Actually – that’s not including the division level hustings for Cambridgeshire County Council. The County Council has noticeably more generous expense allowances than the city – mainly due to a mixture of political and historical reasons. (Personally I think the expenses system nationally needs to be overhauled so that councillors from less affluent backgrounds are not penalised in the party political debate on who can spend the least on expenses).

Statements of Persons Nominated:

In Cambridge we have the following:

In South Cambridgeshire

In East Cambridgeshire

In Fenland

In Huntingdonshire

In Peterborough

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